MIAMI (AP) — Sometimes large-scale international diplomacy is about small-scale gestures.
On Monday, it was nine Ukrainian children playing with dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium while waiting to be fitted with free prosthetic limbs. Their visit and treatment are courtesy of Ukrainian first lady Kateryna Yushchenko, members of South Florida's Cuban-American community and others.
The nonprofit Cuba Democracy Advocates wants to build solidarity with Ukraine's fledgling democratic government by helping to pay for prosthetics for about 30 low-income children from the former communist nation and by increasing medical exchanges.
Many Cuban-Americans see Ukraine as a model for peaceful political change and want to support its government and recent criticism of political repression on the communist island.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., has worked with the State Department to send doctors to Ukraine and most recently to bring the children to Florida.
"The countries that most understand the Cuban people — besides the U.S. — are the countries of Central and Eastern Europe," said Diaz-Balart, who is Cuban-American. "When I go there, I feel so well. The people there get it."
The Cuban-American community and the U.S. government are keenly aware of the decades of medical treatment that Cuba provided for Ukrainians before pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko became president two years ago. Cuba treated thousands of Ukrainian children after the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
Since 2005, much of that aid has dried up, and relations between the two countries have cooled.
"The U.S. was concerned that Cuba would cut out medical support for the Ukraine, and there was a push to say, `If you take a stronger stance on Cuba, there are still ways to get that support,'" said Carlos Pascual, vice president and head of foreign policy for the Brookings Institution in Washington. Pascual served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2000 to 2003 and is also Cuban-American.
He called the treatment for the children a good gesture but symbolic, considering Ukraine has a population of about 47 million people.
Yushchenko won his country's 2004 election after more than a million Ukrainians took to the streets to protest voter fraud in favor of the Russian-backed presidential candidate. Not surprisingly, he has been critical of Cuba's repression of political dissidents.
Politics were far from the minds of the Ukrainian children who arrived last week. They looked alternately thrilled and terrified as the dolphins leapt out of the water for kisses and high-fives.
When asked what he knew about Cuba or Cuban-Americans before he came to the U.S., Paul Satsuk, 17, of Polonne, Ukraine, grinned.
He mimed smoking a cigar and drinking coffee.
Satsuk couldn't explain why Cuban-Americans would feel a special connection with his country.
"These are very good people, with big hearts," said Satsuk, who lost half his right arm in an industrial accident when he was 6.
Vladimir Hynedka, 49, accompanied his young son Stepha on the trip. He asked his Cuban-American host family if they were Christians because he couldn't think of another reason why they would try so hard to help his son.
The connection between Ukrainians and Cuban-Americans is understandable, said Taras Tkachuk, 30, a Ukrainian doctor who works with Kateryna Yushchenko's charity, Ukraine 3000 Fund, which helped sponsor the group along with Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics in Orlando.
"It's difficult to have a democracy after totalitarianism. Our parents were born under that system. But these kids, they look forward. They feel life in a different way. They are able to use choices," Tkachuk said. "The same will one day be in Cuba."
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